Truth be told, I know very little about the life of Anthony Bourdain. I’ve seen a few episodes of his television series Parts Unknown, but that’s about it. As many of you have seen or heard, his name made headlines earlier this month after his tragic passing. In the days following his death, I read every article I could find that might shed some light on a man who lived an incredibly inspiring life. I learned about a world-renown chef and an award-winning author. I learned about a man who lead the life many only dream of having: traveling the world and sharing meals with people across the globe.
During my readings, I came across many of his famous quotes on travel, cooking, and life. His zest for life and international traveling was founded in his love for food. During his travels, he had a no-holds-barred approach, eating anything and everything that was culturally-relevant to whatever country he was in.
But in what I found, I think he was on to something bigger than just the meals he was sharing. It’s something that I think I’m just now beginning to understand myself…
* * *
“Hey King!” A voice calls from outside.
“Oh, there you are. Come on in,” I say, stepping outside and unlocking the gate to my apartment.
South, a friend of mine who works at the school, steps out of his shoes and follows me into the apartment. We head straight past the dining table to the back of the kitchen, where several pieces of salt fish and corn fish are sitting in a pot of boiling water. In the sink a few green figs were peeled and soaking in a bowl of water.
“I had the fish soaking overnight like you’re supposed to. It’s been boiling in the water there for about ten minutes now. I just got started on peeling the green figs.”
“Okay. Have a seat there and find the football game. I’ll take it from here,” he says, intuitively picking up a knife and expertly peeling the green figs.
I sat down and pulled up on my laptop the World Cup match of the afternoon: Germany vs. Sweden. By the time I turned back around, South had all the green figs were peeled.
“How many people are going to come through?” South asks.
“I’m not sure. I told some other Volunteers about it and I was going to send out messages to some others once we had it going.”
“We should get more green figs. Maybe some more dasheen and yam, too. We want enough food if people come through, but if not then you have plenty left over for tomorrow and the next day.”
“Okay that’s a good idea. I’ll run next door and get some.”
While he got started on peeling the plantains, I ran over to the market next door where I purchased a few more green figs, dasheen, and yams from the pleasant ladies conversing behind their respective vending stalls.
When I returned I handed them all to South, who inspects one of the dasheen.
“Oh, this one isn’t dasheen. It’s tania.”
“Really? How can you tell the difference?”
He begins explaining the difference between the two similar ground provisions, identifiable by the texture of the skin, color, and size. Although dasheen is preferential, the tania can still serve the purpose so he begins washing and peeling both of them anyway.
Meanwhile I turn to the freezer, pulling out a bottle of rum and some juice.
“How about some drinks?”
After fixing up some drinks and preparing the provisions, it was time to return to the salt fish. Turning off the burner, South picks up the pot of boiling water and pours the fish into a strainer.
“You don’t want oven pads or anything?” I ask, dumbfounded that he grabbed the pot of boiling water with his bare hands.
“Nah, man,” he smiles. “My hands are used to the heat.”
“You kidding? I’d be crying if I did that,” I reply as we break into a laugh.
He then proceeds to tell me about his time working on a ship, traveling throughout the Caribbean islands for work. It was then, during his travels to the likes of Trinidad, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, Barbuda, and Antigua, that he handled hot items so frequently it doesn’t affect him anymore.
Having lived on St. Lucia for seven weeks myself, we began sharing our opinions on the island and how it differs from Grenada. We talked about the similarities between the two as well.
Pulling the fish from the strainer, he presses the meat through and drops the flaky pieces into a dish, careful to remove all the minuscule, hard-to-see bones.
“You want to make sure you get all the bones out,” he says. “You don’t know what your friends may like, so best to make sure you get them all out. There’s a lot of them in there.”
“I see. You know, I like the salt fish but I don’t think I’ve had the corn fish before.”
“No? It’s nice. Here try a piece,” he says, handing me a piece of the corn fish.
“Hmm, that’s actually pretty good,” I say, getting my first taste of the corn fish.
Next step was the dumplings, used to complement the provisions. Pouring the flour in a large mixing bowl with increments of water, I began kneading it into dough. When the dough was ready, it was time to roll the dumplings.
South reaches in, pulling off a wad of dough. Then rolling it back and forth in his hands, the wad took on a smooth, soft, elongated shape. I pulled off a wad of my own, rolling it in my palms as it quickly thinned out and broke into two.
“No, no, here,” he says, taking the dough from my hands. “Hold it in your fingers like this,” he carefully rolls another dumpling in his fingers before mashing it back together and handing it back to me to try.
Placing it in my fingers just as he showed, I rubbed the dough in my fingers as if I were starting a primitive fire with sticks and stones. I was careful to make sure the dough stayed between my fingertips. As I did this, the dough quickly formed into the elongated shape of a dumpling. The hypothetical light bulb had gone off in my head.
“Oh! I got it now,” I say.
He nods approvingly and I place it into a pot alongside the other provisions. Looking back at my computer, I saw the score of the football match was now tied.
“Hey! Germany just scored,” I pointed to the screen.
“What?! Eh, boy,” South says, looking over as we watch a replay of the scoring point.
World Cup fever is alive and well right now in Grenada.
A short while later the salt fish and provision was ready. Grabbing my phone, I sent a few text messages to some local friends.
Honestly, I wasn’t really sure if anyone would come. I had never hosted a cook-up before. Salt fish and provision is a popular Caribbean dish and hosting a cook-up is a prominent tradition in the West Indies. The idea for me to host one originated with just me and South, cooking-up to celebrate my birthday that weekend. But when you have all this food, it’d be ridiculous not to share.
So I sent out the word about the cook-up with no real expectations. I was hoping people would come through. But like South told me earlier, if no one did it wouldn’t really matter, for then we’d have a full meal to ourselves and then some for the next couple days. That’s just how a cook-up is done here.
We set everything out in various pots, bowls, and serving dishes on the counter. South then skillfully dishes up a plate and walks it over to my upstairs neighbor, as is custom between the two old friends.
Then after a short while came Rohan, a local friend with whom I often play pool with at Mansa’s bar up the road. He was also watching the football match back in his home before he came over to join us. We pulled up the highlights and talked about the exciting finish to the match, which ended with Germany’s late goal in stoppage time to steal a 2-1 victory.
Excited about having someone to serve, I quickly dished up a plate and handed it to Rohan. The reggae sounds of Tarrus Riley, a local artist who I’ve really come to enjoy, plays on the speakers from my computer. The topic of reggae comes to the surface and we begin discussing the different artists we listen to. Rohan and I talk about how we went to the Beres Hammond concert together back on Mother’s Day. South mentions his personal favorite being Eric Donaldson, who just performed in Grenada recently. One thing we all agreed on, however, was that the Jamaican reggae artists are simply born with a gift.
“Hey King! Outside man!” Two voices call.
I hustle outside to open the gate for Akim and St. Paul, two teachers at my rival school St. John’s Anglican, who I also play basketball with on Sunday evenings. They just returned to Gouyave from the hospital, where Akim just had surgery. His right arm was now in a cast and sling, having broken it while we were playing basketball the night before at the island-wide Teachers’ Sports event up in the parish of St. Patrick. I hadn’t seen him since we carried him off the court and into a car to be rushed off to the hospital. He was still in some pain but was in otherwise good spirits.
They took a seat on my beat-in couch and I served them a dish. We updated them on the football matches of the day, which they hadn’t been able to follow. They couldn’t stay long, however, as it was time for them to return back home.
Then comes Junior, a short, athletic man with a broad smile. He’s a popular face in town, everyone recognizing him as the “Moko Jumbie” (a traditional stilts dancer popular at cultural events). A friend of South’s, I introduce myself and serve him a dish, which he sits down to enjoy. I ask him about how he does it, dancing on those stilts all day long. He laughs and explains he’s done it all his life and offered to teach me how sometime. I agreed to take him up on the offer, so I guess we’ll see how that goes.
“Hello!” A bubbly, cheery voice calls as Sarah, the PCV from my neighboring community of Grand Roy, enters my apartment.
“Happy Birthday!” She says, handing me a small bag.
Inside were two gifts: a stone from Palmiste Beach, the halfway point between our communities, and a calabash bowl. Each was hand-painted, the stone with the Peace Corps logo and the inside of the calabash bowl with various designs in Grenadian national colors. A heartfelt gift, it’s a testament of her artistic ability and the bond between Peace Corps Volunteers. There is something to be said about having “government-assigned friends” in a foreign country. She, as well as Riley, the other EC 88 Peace Corps Volunteer on Grenada, are on the last leg of their Peace Corps journeys as they COS (Close of Service) and return to the States in late July. Consequently, we’re trying to make the most of their remaining time here.
I dish up a plate for her and she joins in the conversation. South is taken by the calabash bowl, impressed by the work she did and wondering if he can get one made for himself.
Then comes Byron, one of the first guys I really got to know here. We cross paths often, shooting pool by Mansa’s and playing basketball down in the park. He takes a seat at the table and I hand him a dish.
“Hey, J!” I call out through my kitchen window, seeing one of my students sitting on the veranda of his apartment, the one behind my house.
He walks up to the window and peers through, looking between the curtains.
“Go tell your mother I cooked up some salt fish and provision and come get some.”
He nods and runs back inside his home.
A short while later Roseanne and J show up at my door, taking a break from their preparations to return to St. Vincent later this week. Having first moved to Grenada back in January, they have lived in my apartment complex for the past six months. I have gotten to know them pretty well, having J in my class and eating out with them at Fish Friday. We’ve even done some cook-ups together as well, as Roseanne was the first to show me the ropes to making salt fish and provision, in addition to the callaloo soup. We were supposed to make a Sunday lunch together, but unfortunately, we’ve run out of time.
Then came Marsha, the preschool teacher at my school. It’s with her I’ve attended all the past island-wide events celebrating Teachers’ Month this June, such as the Teachers’ Quiz, the Teachers’ Cook-up at Bathway Beach, a Secondary School Night Cruise, and Teachers’ Sports. If there’s a social event going on for the teachers, she’s the one to talk to. A prominent figure at the school, her classroom is the place to be after school lets out for the day. With the chairs and couches inside my apartment filled up, she takes a seat outside on the rail of my veranda.
“Hey Scott!” John, the PCV from Concord, calls as he enters the room. Having seen him that morning, we catch up on the rest of the day, while he mixes himself a drink and joins Marsha out on my veranda.
The day had turned to night and the salt fish and provision was running low. Drinks, much like the conversation, kept flowing. I took a step back, taking a breath and surveying my apartment before me. Inside and outside were numerous people I am proud to call friends. It was a steady mix of Volunteers, local friends, co-workers, and neighbors. I’ve met them all through different means, but they all made the effort to come through for the cook-up. The chatter was constant, multiple conversations occurring simultaneously, a pleasant chorus to the ear.
Flashbacks from home came crossing through my mind. As the youngest of six children, the front door at my house was essentially a revolving door. Growing up we often did not even lock the door, for someone was always home or passing through. Friends never had to knock, either, just walking in as if it were their own home. My dorm rooms throughout college and the house I had my senior year were much the same way, people always coming and going. That to me, gives me the feeling of home.
I always took pride in that. I always took pride in that people can feel comfortable in my home, that they know they can invite themselves over and simply be themselves. Someone else feeling at home, in your own home, to me is one of the highest compliments one can receive.
I’ve held gatherings for the other PCVs at my place before, but this was the first opportunity where I got to invite both locals and Volunteers over. Each individual that came to the cook-up had been woven into my life at various points. I’ve formed friendships with each and every one of them. Some of them have just entered into my life, others have been and will be around for awhile yet, while others only a short time more. Each one had a different story to share, but somehow we all ended up in the same place that particular evening.
But I digress, for it’s time to return to the moral of the story.
* * *
I think [Bourdain] was on to something bigger than just the meals he was sharing. It’s something that I think I’m just now beginning to understand myself…
Having lived in the Caribbean for over a year now, it is evident that hosting a “cook-up” is a common way for people to get together here. If you think about it, no matter where you go or what you do, everyone has to eat. Cooking and eating are essential to life. So hosting communal meals not only nourishes our stomachs, they nourish our souls. They are a breeding ground for companionship. Cook-ups are a reason to gather and interact with your neighbors and friends. It’s a way of meeting people and getting to know who they are and what they’re all about. Although it’s the food that brings everyone to the table, it’s the conversation that brings the cook-up to life. It’s in the conversation where you learn about someone’s past, an individual’s talents, opinions in shared interests, and find common ground through intercultural exchange.
But it’s all because of what brings everyone together: the meal.
Just look at it from the perspective of my afternoon cook-up with my friend, South. Throughout the day and night people from my community came and went. I was reunited with old friends and introduced to new ones. Some of those friends will soon be leaving Grenada, and time will tell if or when I’ll see them again. Others I’ll see again, likely at another cook-up. But that’s the way life is, people come and go. But it’s the memories that we’ll share, the memories like the time we all gathered for a cook-up, that will last forever.
But don’t take my word for it. Take Bourdain’s:
“Meals make the society, hold the fabric together in lots of ways that were charming and interesting and intoxicating to me. The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself.”
Like I said, I think I’m just now understanding what Bourdain seemed to have figured out long ago:
That when it comes to a cook-up, it’s about way more than just a meal.
Note: As many of you have learned, Anthony Bourdain’s cause of death was determined to be a suicide. To those who knew him, it was an unexpected event.
To anyone reading this that is struggling with depression or other mental health issues, know that you are loved and that you are not alone. Mental health is a very real and very serious issue. It’s time we break the stigma. The (American) Suicide Prevention Hotline is listed below: